The Buzz

The Strange Story of How U.S. Dive Bombers Arrived at Pearl Harbor (As It Was Attacked)

Many people have heard of the six American Curtiss P-40 Tomahawk fighters that actually got off the ground and contested the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941. Some know about the 11 Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress bombers winging toward Pearl Harbor from California unarmed and out of gas. A few are aware of the six obsolete Curtiss P-36 Hawk that were able to take off. However, almost no one knows the story of 18 Douglas SBD Dauntless dive-bombers from the aircraft carrier Enterprise that arrived over Pearl Harbor simultaneously with the Japanese. These were the planes of Scouting Squadron Six.

Three U.S. aircraft carriers were operating in the Pacific that day. The Saratoga (CV3) was being overhauled in San Diego. The Lexington (CV2) had just left Pearl Harbor to deliver 18 Vought SB2U Vindicator dive bombers to Midway. The Enterprise (CV6) was just returning from a similar delivery of 12 Grumman F4F Wildcats to Wake Island. She was due back at Pearl on December 6. Fortunately, a storm loomed, so Halsey reduced speed and the ship did not actually reach port until the 8th.

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Halsey knew war was imminent. Drills had been conducted regularly over the past few months, the most recent on November 27. When Halsey was given his orders to reinforce Wake, he had deliberately asked, “How far do you want me to go?”

Admiral Husband E. Kimmel, commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, replied, “Use your own common sense.”

That was all Halsey needed to hear. In his famous “Battle Order Number One,” the first item read, “The Enterprise is now operating under war conditions.” When his operations officer challenged this order, Halsey replied, “I’ll take [responsibility]. If anything gets in the way, we’ll shoot first and argue afterwards.” He intended to bomb anything on the sea and shoot down anything in the sky.

It was ironic. Unlike the rest of the Navy on December 7, the Enterprise fliers saw the enemy first. Their guns were loaded. Their crews were trained. But still, like everyone else, they did not quite expect an attack at home. They were looking for submarines. When they arrived, they thought the smoke was from burning sugar cane fields. They thought the shell fire was just a drill. They thought the stacks of green aircraft belonged to the Army. Only when they saw the antiaircraft blossoms over Pearl did they realize the truth.

Both the Japanese and American forces had launched aircraft at first light. At 0615 on December 7, the Japanese carriers sent their first attack wave aloft 250 miles north-northwest of Oahu. At exactly the same moment, the Enterprise launched what was thought to be a routine patrol directly in front of the ship’s advance. As usual, the patrol would search a hemisphere of 180 degrees directly ahead of the task force. The flight consisted of nine pairs of SBD-2 Dauntless dive-bombers, mostly from Scout Squadron Six, but including a few planes from Bomb Squadron Six. Each pair of aircraft would conduct a zigzag search in an arc 150 miles long and approximately 10 degrees wide. Instead of returning to the ship, they would then continue on to land at Ford Island, thus getting a jump on shore leave.

At 0645, the destroyer USS Ward fired on and sank a Japanese midget submarine operating within the defensive perimeter of Pearl Harbor. Seventeen minutes later, the Army radar station at Opana Point picked up the first wave of Japanese attackers. Thirteen minutes later, the second Japanese wave was launched. At 0748, Kaneohe Airfield was strafed and bombed. At 0752, Lt. Cmdr. Mitsuo Fuchida, tactical commander of the first wave, sent the message, “Tora, Tora, Tora,” meaning that surprise had been achieved. At the same time Scouting Six planes began to arrive over Oahu.

To maintain radio silence, Halsey had not informed Pearl Harbor his location or of his reconnaissance patrol. When news of the attack reached him, his first thought was, “My God, they’re shooting at my own boys!”

One of the first two-plane sections to arrive was aircraft 6-S-16, piloted by Frank A. Patriarca with a gunner named DeLuca, and 6-S-15, piloted by Ensign W.M. Willis with gunner Fred J. Ducolon. They almost made it to Ford Island. The two had passed Barbers Point, rounded Ewa Field, and were actually lining up on their landing approach when the attack began. They noticed the antiaircraft fire, but it was not until a Japanese Aichi “Val” dive-bomber winged over and flashed the rising sun insignia that Patriarca knew something was very wrong. At the same instant, tracers began whizzing past his plane.

Immediately, Patriarca opened throttle, diving back toward the coast. He had decided to try and make it all the way back to the Enterprise when he realized he was alone. After searching for 6-S-15, his fuel was low, so he landed at Burns Field on Kauai. Willis and Ducolon were never found, although Mitsubishi Zero fighters led by Lieutenant Masaji Suganami from the carrier Soryu would later claim three SBDs.